It’s 9:20 in the morning and Sam Jones, a third generation pit master, Yeti “brand ambassador,” and author of new book Whole Hog BBQ: The Gospel of Carolina Barbecue with Recipes from Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ, is running a little late. We were supposed to meet at 9 a.m., and I’m already on my second cup of coffee. But it’s sunny for the first time in days and I don’t mind the wait — Jones apologizes and we move to a table outside, where he promptly pours a bottle of Cheerwine into his Yeti tumbler.
He’s a Carolina boy through and through — Jones’ grandfather Pete opened the Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C., a tiny town of about 5,500 people, in 1947. The concept was simple enough: wood-fired whole hog ‘cue chopped up with a light Eastern N.C. vinegar sauce, and pieces of crispy “glass-like shards” of pig skin mixed in with the meat. Pete and his humble eatery would go on to make list after list, being featured in National Geographic, Southern Living, People, the Travel Channel, and more. Skylight even garnered a James Beard in 2003 for “America’s Classics.” Jones opened a eponymous restaurant nearby in 2015, while Pete’s son Bruce and nephew Jeff continue to operate Skylight.
Like Proust with his madeleines, Jones sips on his soda and memories begin to pour out — his grandfather’s steel tackle box, the long lost and found recipe for shrimp stew, the time he did an event in Sweden on his own grill. Jones is in town for a few days, and will be at the new Yeti Charleston store (360 King St.) on Sat. June 15, from noon to 3 p.m. for a “Meat & Greet.”
Jones has a lot of stories, and analogies — “I love analogies, it’s a way to ensure everyone knows exactly what you mean.” You could read a lot of them in Whole Hog BBQ, which is just as much a memoir as a cookbook, and you can soak up some meaty wisdom in-person tomorrow. For now, here are our favorite Jones-isms:
It’s all about the story
“Your favorite of something is so much more tied to your experience than to the food itself. I’m a restaurant man now, and my favorite hot dog in the world comes from Washington, N.C. it’s the cheapest bun, cheapest frank, cheapest condiments. But when I went to Washington with my grandaddy, we’d stop and get a hot dog and cone of ice cream on the ride home — that being my favorite hot dog has nothing to do with the quality of the hot dog.”
Don’t be an asshole
“I’m always nice to people, that always carries you farther. I don’t have a college degree, I don’t have all the money in the world, but I am nice to everybody — I attribute being able to do this book to me being nice to everyone more so than my knowledge of food or barbecue, there are plenty of people smarter than I am.”
And if you can’t help your not-so-nice disposition, think twice before going into the barbecue biz, or any biz. “I think you should examine yourself, not only don’t go into barbecue, don’t go into any business because you’ll get found out. For instance: we could walk to the closest convenience store and buy a Pepsi, could take a razor blade and cut the label off and put Coca-Cola, or RC or Dr. Pepper or whatever on it and sit it on the shelf and for the longest time it’s any dark cola you’ve chosen with the label. But when you shake it up and make it volatile and put it in the right situation it’s gonna spew — and that’s when the Pepsi comes out.”
We’re moving beyond geography
Yes, Jones and his family have been cooking Eastern North Carolina ‘cue for generations. But he acknowledges and applauds the many different barbecue styles found across the country. “Our barbecue isn’t ‘the best.’ Barbecue is defined by geography and there is really good of every style and really bad of every style, we try to offer the best of this style.”
Jones has done events with his good friends (who both rep different styles of ‘cue) Pat Martin (Martins’ Bar-B-Que Joint) and Rodney Scott where the pit masters share one hog. Maximum efficiency, plus “there ain’t a nickle worth of difference,” between Jones’ and Scott’s cooking method he says.
“Mine is chopped with skin, his is pulled with a little more spice, it’s still vinegar-based, wood-fired whole hog. As time moves on, geography is starting to matter less and less. There are Eastern and Western N.C. styles and writers have loved to talk about that rivalry like it’s Duke and Carolina! There is no rivalry. Lines are starting to get blurred, especially in bigger markets — there are what, 100 people a day moving to Nashville? They all have their favorite barbecue. At some point, those lines will blur even more, meaning the lines aren’t even important to start with. They don’t even matter. “I say this all the time — you don’t have to be multi-generational, don’t have to be on certain piece of dirt to cook good barbecue.”
Don’t skip the slaw
“I like it on a sandwich with coleslaw … the balance with the vinegar and the sweet of the slaw it complements the acidity that’s in the pork. It’s somewhere in the Bible that you have to put slaw on a pork sandwich.” (See this clip from A Chef’s Life to see exactly how many huge scoops of sugar go into Skylight Inn slaw…)
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